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John Jones's Dollar (1915)
Harry Stephen Keeler
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

The main mathematical content of this science fiction story is an illustration of the potential of exponential growth in the form of considering how a single dollar invested in a bank would grow in value over many years to be a huge sum:

(quoted from John Jones's Dollar)

"Now you gentlemen who are taking mathematics under Professor L127M72421Male, of the University of Mars, will remember that where any number such as X, in passing through a progressive cycle of change, grows at the end of that cycle by a proportion p, then the value of the original X, after n cycles, becomes X(1 + p)n.

"Obviously, in this case, X equalled one Dollar; p equalled three one-hundredths; and n will depend upon any number of years which we care to consider, following the date of deposit. By a simple calculation, those of you who are today mentally alert can check up the results that I shall set forth in my lecture.

"At the time that John Jones died, the amount in the First National Bank of Chicago to the credit of John Jones the fortieth, was as follows."

The professor seized the chalk and wrote rapidly upon the oblong space:

193110 years elapsed $1.34
2521600 years $47,900,000

In the past, I did not consider this to be sufficiently mathematical to be included in this database. Perhaps I was just being snooty, or perhaps my standards have changed, but Vijay Fafat has convinced me to add it to the database now. There is one other tiny bit of mathematics in the form of this quote:

(quoted from John Jones's Dollar)

"By the year 2621 A.D., two events of stupendous importance took place. There is scarcely a man in this class who has not heard of how Professor P222D29333Male accidentally stumbled upon the scientific fact that the effect of gravity is reversed upon any body which vibrates perpendicularly to the plane of the ecliptic with a frequency which is an even multiple of the logarithm of 2 of the Naperian base 'e.'

However, as long as I'm adding this here, I'd like to add some remarks of a non-mathematical nature:

  • It is cool that this story from 1915 seemingly predicts the current fad for "distance education" which is a hot topic in academia as well as cordless (cell?) phones:

    (quoted from John Jones's Dollar)

    On the 201st day of the year 3221 A.D., the professor of history at the University of Terra seated himself in front of the Visaphone and prepared to deliver the daily lecture to his class, the members of which resided in different portions of the earth.

    The instrument before which he seated himself was very like a great window sash, on account of the fact that there were three or four hundred frosted glass squares visible. In a space at the center, not occupied by any of these glass squares, was a dark oblong area and a ledge holding a piece of chalk. And above the area was a huge brass cylinder; toward this brass cylinder the professor would soon direct his subsequent remarks.


    From his coat pocket, the professor withdrew an instrument which, although supplied with an earpiece and a mouthpiece, had no wires whatever attached. Raising it to his lips, he spoke:

    "Hello. Central Energy Station, please." A pause ensued. "Central Energy Station? This is the professor of history at the University of Terra, speaking....

  • It is interesting to me that in 1915 (prior to the big crash of '29), the idea that an investment would just keep growing and growing (unless the bank was robbed, which the story does mention) may have seemed reasonable. Of course, since that time, nobody would fall for the myth of perpetual economic growth! (BTW In case this sarcasm is not so obvious far in the future when someone may read this remark, let me add that a recent resurgence of this same myth resulted in some unpleasantness.)
  • And, even given the idea that value could just increase forever, the idea of the story is silly since one dollar invested by someone in the past would not grow in value beyond all that anyone else owns since other people also have money to invest. Instead, all one would see would be a decrease in the value of that dollar as not just John Jones's descendants but anyone with investments would be making money, which would simply devalue it.
  • In some ways, this story is dated (e.g. all of the students are male), but I like other aspects as still being clever. For example:

    (quoted from John Jones's Dollar)

    Now as to the Dollar. At this day, when the Psycho-Erg, a combination of the Psych, the unit of esthetic satisfaction, and the Erg, the unit of mechanical energy, is recognized as the true unit of value, it seems difficult to believe that in the twentieth century and for more than ten centuries thereafter, the Dollar, a metallic circular disk, was being passed from hand to hand in exchange for the essentials of life.

At one point I had traced this story back to its 1927 appearance in Amazing Stories, but Bob Jennings kindly wrote to let me know that it is even older:

Contributed by Bob Jennings

You might want to make a correction. The story "John Jones' Dollar" was originally published in the August 1915 issue of The Black Cat magazine. Hugo Gernsback reprinted the story in the April 1927 issue of Amazing Stories, and Sam Moskowitz got it reprinted again in Amazing in the early 1960s. However the original first appearance was in 1915, when the concept of accumulated interest at 3% over decades held more potential interest.

In addition to its appearances in Black Cat (1915) and Amazing Stories (1927), it was notably reprinted again in the mathematical fiction collection Fantasia Mathematica. And, in any case, it is now available online for free through Project Gutenberg.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to John Jones's Dollar
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Circle of Zero by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  2. The Fourth Dynasty by R.R. Winterbotham
  3. The Finan-seer by Edward L. Locke
  4. Numbers in the Dark (La notte dei numeri) by Italo Calvino
  5. The Einstein See-Saw by Miles J. Breuer
  6. The Gostak and the Doshes by Miles J. Breuer (M.D.)
  7. The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin by Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi
  8. The Ultimate Analysis by John Russell Fearn
  9. Drunkard's Walk by Frederik Pohl
  10. A Victim of Higher Space by Algernon Blackwood
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GenreScience Fiction,
TopicMathematical Finance,
MediumShort Stories,

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